War in Europe
Stand with Ukraine and the West
The UK has long proclaimed its prowess in security matters and military preparedness. It is one of Western Europe’s two nuclear powers, even though the Americans hold the second key to the operation of the missiles which fire its warheads. It is one of the few western European powers (along with Estonia and Greece) which continues to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence, though its reach and ability to sustain armed conflict are sorely limited compared to fifty years ago. Even as a EU member, the UK always favoured NATO and scorned purely European defence initiatives. It believes in the ‘special relationship’ it boasts with the USA and was pleased to highlight Australia’s decision to cancel an order for French submarines in favour of ‘five eyes’ co-operation. Its Prime Minister even seeks to portray himself as a model of the UK’s wartime leader Winston Churchill, however risible the comparison.
So it was hardly surprising that, in the face of an aggressive build up of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders, foreign secretary Liz Truss was despatched to Moscow for a meeting with her Russian counterpart and a photoshoot in Red Square wearing the obligatory Russian fur hat; that defence minister Ben Wallace engaged in conversation with his opposite number in Moscow or that Boris Johnson himself sought to engage Putin in telephone conversations. The supply of non-lethal equipment to Ukraine’s defence forces followed the same pattern: Britain seeks to pretend it is still a great power and that its writ still counts for something.
To many, these antics bring to mind the words of poet laureate Philip Larkin, of the nation’s military prowess, ‘It used to make me throw up, these mawkish nursery games: O when will England grow up!’
Yet the decision of the EU’s foreign ministers to invite the UK’s Foreign Secretary to the foreign affairs council meeting in Brussels on 4 March and her acceptance (doubtless eased by the presence of her US and Canadian counterparts) have served to bring the UK back into the European fold from which it has seemed determined, since the 2016 Brexit referendum, to break free. Beneath the flag waving and the yah-boo of political rhetoric, even Britain recognises that the invasion of Ukraine is an attack on western liberal democracy which can be repelled only by strong international co-operation, both European and transatlantic. Moreover, its longstanding logistical assistance to Ukraine’s military can undoubtedly be helpful in stalling Russia’s advance.
The UK’s main weakness lies in the gap between its words and its actions. All too willing to call for the closure of Nord Stream 2 or to criticise the dependence of its neighbours on Russian oil and gas, the UK is nonetheless reluctant to tackle its own flank of exposure to Russia. London has long been a major centre for the safekeeping and throughput of the wealth of Russia’s oligarchs and its willingness to restrict their activity is much limited by the generosity of the donations solicited from them by the ruling Conservative Party. Thus the UK has sought to impose only minimal sanctions on the wealth management of very few Russian oligarchs (almost 100 have been sanctioned by the USA and the EU but not by Britain) while deciding initially to allow no sanctuary for Ukrainian refugees, even those with family members in the UK. Indeed, one critic quipped that it is easier for a Russian oligarch (Evgeny Lebedev, Tory donor and owner of two UK newspapers) to enter the House of Lords than for a Ukrainian refugee to enter the United Kingdom. While the EU has moved boldly to use the Temporary Protection Directive passed into law under my tutelage in 2001 (as Chairman of the European Parliament’s Committee on Citizens Rights, Justice and Home Affairs), the UK government has sought to deny calls for Britain to take its share of those fleeing Putin’s tanks and aircraft.
Reassuringly, the UK government’s attempt to avoid tough decisions was not followed by UK civil society. While Boris Johnson’s government appeared to dither and to delay, companies like BP acted quickly to divest their operations in Russia and medical and humanitarian charities raised impressive sums of money rapidly from public donation for aid to Ukrainians.
Britain’s Brexiters have tried to suggest that Britain’s response to the invasion of Ukraine shows the benefits of being outside the EU; and that Brexit has enabled the UK to show international leadership in the face of Russian aggression. They are unsurprisingly silent about how Brexit, fuelled by Russia’s donations to the United Kingdom’s Independence Party, contributed to the weakening of the international liberal order, thus emboldening Putin; or about how it has marginalised Britain in Putin’s eyes.
The UK may yet be shamed by others into acting more effectively against Russia’s oligarchs and accepting a greater number of refugees. Slowly but surely, the invasion of Ukraine may provide opportunities to coax it back from the pull of nationalism into the global liberal order.